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21 January 2021

The Art of Displaying Art

As a celebrated fine artist, John Oxborough is particular about the way artworks should be displayed in a home, even more so as he is also a qualified interior designer.


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The Art of Displaying Art

John Oxborough’s work covers a broad spectrum of visual and spatial mediums and practices, from drawing interior concepts – ‘it’s easier to create a particular mood hand-drawing rather than using CAD,’ he says – to design-and-build projects, specialising in custom-designed headboards and cabinetry, to art consulting and procurement, as well as installing and hanging art pieces in clients’ homes. He has an eye for composition, and can almost instantly see how to improve on what you thought were your carefully composed objects. And although it’s largely intuitive, there is a formula for hanging art, he says.

“Stick to the same rules that apply to interior design; achieve a balance by keeping things that are the same together in groups. A lot of people have lovely pieces, but they hang them in the wrong places. You can completely change the look of your interiors by the way you display your art.

“Look for cues that link things, like the weave of a basket, the grain of timber on the arm of a chair, or similar tones and colours.”

People often come to John when they have moved or downsized from a larger home to a small apartment, with perhaps just two or three walls in the living area.

“That’s when we move into grouping, or condensing art together by layering it with narrow spaces in between each piece, creating montages in smaller spaces.

“Then you start to look at the framing and the size of each work, juggling the proportions, height, scale and colours that go together. You need frames that complement one another. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle working out which piece goes with what.

“In a sense you’re creating a new artwork in itself from lots of different pieces – which is great because when you have things you’re not so enamoured with, you suddenly see them with renewed perspective. A montage can often make you like them again.”

John says a montage has more interest if there’s a balance of landscape and portrait, or horizontal and vertical pieces. He emphasises the importance of making sure there is the same narrow gap between each piece, so the lines are consistent.

Conservative or symmetrical ‘hangs’ work particularly well if the pictures are the same shape and colour – for example four black-and-white photographs in a long straight row, but don’t make the gaps too big. That’s a mistake many people make, he says.

Achieve the right composition by laying the artworks on the floor below the wall space and playing around with placement until it works. Slide each piece in, so they all line up, then mimic the shape and form you have created on the wall.

“Hanging art is an art in itself, and you should really get a professional in to help organise large collections.”

When he visits a home, John suggests to his clients that they pull everything out of the cupboards so he can see their art collection in its entirety. That makes it easier for him to see the links and the cues he may want to take from furnishings, accessories and other objects.

He will usually break collections up into themes. If somebody has a lot of photographs, for example, he tries to keep similar subjects together, like holidays in Italy, weddings or pets.

“Keep the story focused on what you’re trying to say rather than pushing them all together. However, if you have random works, you rely on the lines and the frames,” he says.

“Artworks are the last thing to go into a space.”

His advice is to look at the furniture and the shapes of the spaces above and around items like sofas or tables to work out relationships. Tall, darker, narrow wall spaces are good for portrait-shaped artworks or pieces of sculpture. Generally, he places landscape pieces above a long, low sofa or bedhead, but it depends on the room shape and the height of the ceiling.

How you display art can make a room feel bigger. But it can also pull it together and make it feel cohesive.

“Drawings and modern etchings are good for enlivening darker spaces.”

Lighting is incredibly important. While John has clients who still ask for the traditional picture lighting, with an arm extending over the artwork from the wall, that way of lighting art is largely obsolete these days. Concealed spotlights in the ceiling now do the same thing, he says.

“Make sure you get the colour of the lighting right. Everyone goes for LED because it’s modern, but steer clear of blue light. It’s too stark and you want the ambiance of yellow light. The best are the old halogens. Natural lighting is hard because it casts shadows and lines and reflects on glazed works.”

Mirrors are fantastic artworks, he says.

“They’re so functional. They reflect the light and can go just about anywhere, but you have to be able to see yourself in them. They need to be flush to the wall and sit at the right height. Keep them quite low, close to the table top or bureau below, so they become part of a unit setting, rather like a picture.”

Because he has guardianship over a large collection of marine-inspired sculptures by his late ceramic artist father, Peter Oxborough, John says he hangs a lot of sculptural pieces. “They’re great because they have a different feel to them and they tend to suit a variety of places. You can even put sculpture in neglected places like above your kitchen cabinetry.

“I collect and restore oversize original antique punt oars, which sit well, hung vertically in a stairwell, making it a more manageable space rather than an open cavern. I have a variety of pieces available to purchase made by my father, like conceptual Polynesian sailing canoes which will fill a space better than, say, a painting.”

Height is another big thing, says John. Most people hang artworks too high. The centre of the piece needs to be at eye level, about 1520 to 1560 mm.

You can’t go wrong these days by leaning your art against a wall. “Leaning art is really in vogue. Don’t hesitate if you simply want to put it on a table top, either permanently or until you find the perfect place to hang it.”

If you don’t have an eye for art like John, then he suggests you call a professional to do it for you. Often people leave their art sitting around for ages and when John turns up to sort them out, they say they wished they’d called him earlier.

He can help with all the aesthetic and technical aspects of hanging safely onto concrete, wood, plasterboard and brick. No studs are required, he says. He can adjust the heights, make sure pictures line up and are straight, and stay that way without constant adjusting.

John can recommend how and where to place sculpture, multi-media works and arrange your objet d’art and glassworks.

Visit John's website here.

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